About Epicurus

What Is Epicurean Philosophy All About?

Epicurus advised the use of outlines to organize our thoughts on what is important in philosophy, because we frequently have need of the general principles, but only rarely do we need to recall every small detail. Here’s a sample outline of several of the key principles in each section of Epicurean philosophy:

  1. Physics: The Universe Operates on Natural Principles, Neither Chaotically Nor At The Will Of Supernatural Gods, And There Is No Life After Death
    1. Nothing Is Ever Observed to Be Created From That Which Does Not Exist, Nor is Anything Destroyed to Total Nothingness, Either By The Gods Or By Any Other Cause.
    2. True Gods Are Self-Sufficient And Able to Sustain Their Happiness Without Interruption; Such Beings Do Not Interfere In The Affairs Of Humans
    3. The Universe Operates Through Natural Processes Involving Elemental Particles And Void, And Life Itself Arises Naturally
    4. Our World Is Constantly Changing, But The Universe As A Whole Is Eternal
    5. The Universe As A Whole Is Without Boundaries, And There Are No “Gods” Or Anything Else Outside Of it
    6. Nature Never Creates Only A Single Thing of A Kind, And So The Existence of Life On Earth Indicates Life Also Exists On Other Suitable Worlds Throughout the Universe
    7. All Things In Our World Which Come Together From Atoms and Void, Including Our Bodies And Souls, Eventually Break Apart
    8. The Soul Is Born With The Body And Cannot Survive Without It
    9. Death Is The End of All Sensation, And There Is No Experience of Pleasure and Pain Or Anything Else Without Sensation
  2. Canonics: The Three Faculties Which Constitute Our Standard of Truth Are the Senses, The Anticipations (Pre-Conceptions), and the Feelings
    1. It Is Absurd To Argue That Nothing Can Be Known, Because He Who Argues That Nothing Can Be Known Contradicts His Own Argument
    2. Proper Reasoning Must Be Based On Evidence From The Senses And Is Not Valid Without Such Evidence
    3. The Three Canonical Faculties Are Reliable Because They are Incapable of Memory, And They Report Honestly To Us Without Opinion
    4. “All Sensations Are True” in the sense that they are reported truly and honestly, not because every individual sensation reveals to us a complete picture of the matter under consideration.
    5. The Only Guarantee of Truth Is The Verification Of Reality Through Multiple Separate Sensations
    6. We Lose Not Only Reason, But Life Itself, If We Fail To Have the Courage To Trust The Senses
  3. Ethics: The Guide of Life is Pleasure
    1. All Good And Evil Consist In Sensation; The Feelings (Pleasure and Pain) Are Our Guides To Life
    2. Pleasure is To Be Pursued And Pain Is To Be Avoided, But At Times Pain Is To Be Chosen For The Sake of Greater Pleasure Or Lesser Pain
    3. Pleasure is The Beginning And End of A Happy Life; Therefore Happiness Is Grounded in Pleasure, And A Happy Life Is One In Which Pleasure Predominates Over Pain
    4. There Is No Absolute Standard Of Virtue, Piety, Reason, Justice, Or Single Way to Pursue Pleasure, Constituting A Single Way of Life For All People At All Times
    5. Pleasure is An Individual Feeling Which Can Be Said To Be Best Experienced Without Any Mixture Of Pain, But For Which There Is No Single Highest Means of Achievement
    6. Virtue, Piety, Reason and Justice Are Valuable Only Insofar As They Bring Pleasure And Thereby Happiness
    7. There Is No Heaven or Hell After Death In Which We Are Rewarded or Punished
    8. Life Is Short And We Should Pursue Pleasure While We Can And View Our Time As Too Precious To Waste

There’s nothing magic about the precise formulations you see above, and over time we regularly revise them in ways we think make Epicurus’ views more clear and understandable.

One of the most helpful ways that you can enhance your own understanding of Epicurus is to follow his advice to Herodotus and prepare your own outline of the philosophy. Don’t be surprised to find yourself regularly revising it and shifting the items up and down in order of importance. That is to be expected as your comprehension of the importance of the various issues matures. It will take considerable time to realize the many implications of the fundamental principles. EpicureanFriends.com has an entire section of our forum devoted to helping you draw up your own outline. Check out those resources here.

A Preliminary Word On The Nature Of Pleasure:

Most people who come our way have a correct understanding that Epicurus held the experience of mental pleasure to be as much or more important to us than purely bodily pleasure. Unfortunately, many such people also get the impression that this means that Epicurus advocated a withdrawn or ascetic or passive lifestyle.

MetrodorusDespite Epicurus’ emphatic focus on Pleasure as the goal of life, the argument that Epicurus was essentially an ascetic asserts that Epicurus held a counterintuitive definition of pleasure by elevating absence of disturbance (ataraxia) or absence of pain (aponia) as something separate from and more desirable than Pleasure (hedone) itself. Those who maintain this generally argue that Epicurus taught that “resting” (katastematic) pleasures are far more important than the normal “active” (kinetic) pleasures, such as joy and delight, that most people normally cherish.

This argument tends to demoralize and turn off healthy people of active disposition, so if the suggestion that Epicurus was passive, shy, and retiring bothers you (and it should, because it’s not true!) EpicureanFriends.com can help show you the error of the ascetic interpretation of Epicurus.

For a grounding on the history of the dispute, start with Boris Nikolsky’s article “Epicurus on Pleasure.” As Nikolsky explains, the distinction between katastematic and kinetic pleasure was very likely not taught by Epicurus at all, but instead derives from a later Stoic-influenced overlay on Epicurus’ teachings. For more detail on what Epicurus really taught about pleasure, consult the chapters on Epicurus in Gosling and Taylor’s “The Greeks on Pleasure,” especially chapter 19 “Katastematic and Kinetic Pleasure,” which shows how Epicurus embraced a normal and regular definition of pleasure as most of us commonly understand it. For further evidence that the ascetic interpretation of Epicurean philosophy contradicts core premises of the philosophy (and therefore cannot be correct!) see the Wentham article “Cicero’s Interpretation of Katastematic Pleasure.”

If you are concerned that you’ve heard that Epicurus was passive and retiring, and you know that attitude is not right for you, these articles should dispel any lingering concerns.

When you are ready for more, the best way to reboot your understanding of the philosophy is to consult the most thorough general book on Epicurus, Norman DeWitt’s “Epicurus and His Philosophy.” DeWitt provides the sweeping overview of Epicurean philosophy that every new student of Epicurus needs to read. In the process of starting from scratch, you’ll see that DeWitt presents a comprehensive and coherent overview in which the katastematic – kinetic distinction rates little more than a brief mention. You’ll then see why the best record we have of Epicurus’ philosophy – the biography by Diogenes Laertius – raises the issue only by stating explicitly that Epicurus endorsed both types of pleasure.

For additional assistance in these and other issues, please check out our table of Major Issues In Understanding Epicurean Philosophy. And of course, ask questions in the Forum! There’s much more to explain and discuss, but for now, thank you for dropping by, and please let us hear from you! Start now by reading and posting in our General Forum, or in any of the sections devoted to special topics.